As we ponder the events of the last few years in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Egypt and Libya, we are apt to not understand at all how people could be at each other's throats like that. Where is the civility? Where is the knowledge of our common humanity? How could these centuries’ old grievances continue to govern modern politics? This week the radical Islamic group, ISIS, is threatening ancient landmarks of civilization in Palmyra, Syria, and last week Kurds surged into prominence in Turkish elections, based largely on their ethnicity.
The ancestors of most Americans came to this country as immigrants giving up their traditional identities and being willing to start over. Years ago, when I was working in Moscow in the Soviet Union, our Russian colleagues would marvel at the fact that I did not consider myself German or English, even though I had family threads that stretched back to each country.
In America, the common story is that we are mostly finished with our historic quarrels and are starting over, and our success has not hinged so much on our ethnicity as upon our ingenuity or good fortune. And so today Americans are largely amazed that Shias and Sunnis are battling it out, and the Kurds and Turks are battling it out, and Palestinians and Israelis are battling it out. We are apt to wonder why they cannot see that we are all just human beings, given a chance for happiness on this planet. For what earthly reason should anybody be chopping off anybody else's head?
Further, and increasing our American inability to understand what is going on from Libya across the globe to Afghanistan, we in the commercial and industrial West have grown into a greater dependence upon material success as the arbiter of value rather than the anointing of some chosen people by the word of God. We are less apt today to trust religious leaders speaking for God then we might have been through many earlier centuries, and as a consequence we have been released to make our own judgments independent of religious instruction. All this makes us even further unable to understand the flaming radicalism that is tearing apart the map from Libya to Afghanistan.
One time, many years ago, a war was going on between the countries of the former Soviet Union, Armenia and Azerbaijan. It had become a war of ethnic cleansing; millions of refugees had been driven from each country into the other. In the midst of this, I was part of a US team seeking to explore some pathway to peace. At one point our team was invited to the office of the vice president of Armenia, who, in order to explain Armenian grievances with Azerbaijan began a lecture reciting a history of Armenian persecutions and oppressions.
The vice president’s story began in 340 AD and it took him more than three hours to get to the 20th century. Armenia’s whole history, he said, was a tale of oppressions and bullying by one nation after the other, beginning with the Romans and running down through the Russians. Next, he said, millions of Armenians had lost their lives, their homes, their fortunes in the Turkish genocidal fury of 1915 through 1922. We will not forget that, the vice president told us.
As it happened, not many weeks later, our team was hosted by the vice president of Azerbaijan, the country on the other side of that war. This vice president, like his counterpart in Armenia, then described centuries of abuse of Azeris brought upon them by Christians expanding the great Russian empire, beginning in at least the 18th century with Catherine the Great. As Armenians are themselves largely Christian, the Azeris considered those people complicit in centuries of persecution and they, too, had a score to settle.
So then came the Americans in the last part of the 20th century asking each side to move forward; we used the word forgiveness; we attempted to paint a picture of a common future in which both countries could survive amicably. And of course this effort was noble and principled. But what we did not understand, and most Americans still do not understand, is that these horrendous events of the past, reaching as far back as 340 AD, running from the Romans through the Crusades to the wars of Catherine the Great, to the 19th century invasions by Europeans and the fights over Crimea, finally running through the genocides of the 1920s, cannot simply be forgiven through a decision of the mind. Such horrific histories carry with them a kind of generational PTSD and no amount of urging by Americans, or even the occasional willingness by the participants themselves to reach for something new, is not enough to scour out the pain and hurt as if it had never happened.
And so it is that today, even as millions of Americans came to this country in search of a way to move out of the shadows of the past, and because of our ability to plant our roots in a new land, and because we have made some success of it, we have a difficult time understanding those who will not give up the past, carrying it along with them like a load of heavy rocks that they cannot ever discard.
I hasten to add that we did not solve that war between Armenia and Azerbaijan with our efforts in the 1990s. I have vivid memories of sitting in on meetings at which literally hundreds of wives and widows cried to the heavens for their missing husbands and sons and remembered nighttime terrors huddling in basements as the bombs came crashing in. Americans were not only negotiating with this frightening present; we were also negotiating with the past.
Now in 2015, in this week's news the president of the United States has directed the disposition of a stronger military presence in Iraq for the purpose of fighting off ISIS. This week, too, we read of Pentagon plans to position US heavy weaponry in the Baltic States. In the former case we are asking Sunnis to forget centuries of history with the Shias and to unite for a new nationalism created by the West after World War I.
In the Baltics, we are asking president Putin to forget Russian domination of that region that goes back at least to the 18th century. We want Putin to move, as we think, into the present and recognize the inevitability of democracy. Putin for his part scoffs at that; he has no history with which to connect to a democratic dream, and, instead, wants the West to remember Catherine the Great and Alexander I, (who conquered Paris), and therefore to remember the inevitability of Russian military power.
President Obama is hopeful that the use of limited force in Iraq and a moderate show of strength in the Baltics can persuade our adversaries to move beyond their history, to become a part of the world that we call civilized but which, unfortunately, they call naïve.
The dilemma for the president is therefore that too much military force will simply take us back to the 19th century but now with more horrific weapons. Too little force, on the other hand, or no force at all, appears to invite aggression against all of the values that we fought for throughout the 20th century.
In this highly complex situation a furious debate has broken out in Washington as if someone knew the right answer. Many, if not most, Republican politicians fault the president for not acting decisively. Decisively attack somewhere, anywhere, but of course don’t get us into another Vietnam. Most decisively, don’t wade into Iraq again step by step, as we once did in Vietnam. So be decisive, but not so much as to get us into trouble.
In spite of all this posturing, no one, not anyone, has a simple formula for eliminating the anguish and pains that history has brought forward to our own times. In the Middle East those whom we might try to persuade with tanks and guns have military memories that run at least back to the Crusades. No president, Republican or Democrat, will be able to erase those memories. Nor will anyone erase Putin’s dream of reviving Russia’s past.
Nor can it be, for us, a decision of simply withdrawing, bowing out from all this conflict. We have memories of our own; we remember Munich and the Allies giving way to Hitler, and the stupendous cost of not acting with conviction in 1939 when conviction was needed.
And so there it is. A complex and overriding set of contrary memories are on the table in 2015. Anyone who thinks that this president, or any president, can now simply take a military trump card out of the deck, or any other trump card, and play it now, is in delusion. History holds cards, too.